Enjoying all the beautiful hellebores that are just coming into flower around my garden has prompted me to take a closer look at caring for these winter beauties. The photos today are from a set taken for an “In A Vase On Monday’ post last year – they are one of my favourites and seemed perfect to illustrate today’s post.
Hellebores are herbaceous perennials that flower in the depths of winter when the garden can otherwise feel a drab and uninspiring place. They are rather romantically known as the Christmas Rose or the Lenten Rose. Helleborus niger have pure white flowers and often flower before Christmas and throughout January – hence this is the variety that is known as the Christmas rose although it is not often in flower in my garden in time for christmas. Helleborus orientalis (and the many orientalis hybrids) come in many beautiful shades and flower for a full 10 to 12 weeks between January and March – these are the flowers that are called the Lenten roses. Rather than dying back in the summer like many spring flowering perennials, hellebores produce handsome leaves after flowering which are at their best during the summer months.
When we moved to this house 6 years ago I had just discovered hellebores and had attended a few courses led by Roger Harvey of Harvey’s Garden Plants. Roger is a hellebore specialist and his talks and slide shows helped to fuel my growing passion for this stunning winter plant. Many of my hellebores were bred by Roger and I dug my first purchases out of the ground of our previous home before we moved and replanted them here. I am still adding hellebores to the woodland area of my garden and imagine I will continue to do so for some time yet – I am looking forward to the day when a winter walk along the woodland path will be filled with these beautiful flowers!
Hellebores prefer to grow in a rich friable soil which is neither too dry nor waterlogged. They like sunny conditions during their flowering period, but appreciate a bit of shade during the summer. A woodland edge is ideal as the deciduous canopy offers protection from the summer sun but allows in the light after the canopy has dropped. Hellebores work well interplanted with snowdrops and spring bulbs and I am also adding ferns and hardy geraniums to my woodland borders for summer interest.
Hellebores are usually purchased and planted throughout the winter months – I like to buy mine in flower so that I can see the shapes and colours. It is best to dig a large planting hole for a hellebore and incorporate plenty of organic matter – my preference is to add leaf mould, which I also use as a mulch around the plants. Hellebores have a large root system and for this reason are often pot bound when you purchase them. Gently tease out the roots before planting and fill the planting hole with water before back filling around the roots to make sure there is plenty of moisture. You will need to water your new hellebore throughout dry periods during the following summer after which it should grow quite happily whatever the weather. On occasions I have bought immature plants that have been on offer through mail order sites and I have found it best to grow these on in a pot ready to plant out the following autumn when they have a larger root system.
Hellebores are hungry feeders and I usually feed mine with fish blood & bone twice a year – in the spring after flowering has finished and again in late August/early September as the plants prepare to start flowering again. After feeding I mulch around the plants with leaf mould, taking care not to cover the crowns. Hellebores self seed freely, so if you would like to increase your own stock do not remove the old flower heads in the spring. With a bit of luck when you tidy up the old leaves you will find quite a few babies growing underneath which can be potted up and grown on.
In December or January I cut off all the old leaves which will be collapsing on the ground around the developing flowers. The old leaves can harbour pests and diseases so should be burned (rather than added to your compost heap). Removing these leaves allows the beautiful flowers to be seen more clearly and fresh new leaves will soon grow in spring. A little feeding, mulching and tidying of old leaves will reward you with a winter full of stunning flowers in almost as many shades as are found in your summer borders.
Although hellebores are very easy plants to grow they are best planted into the ground. Generally they do not thrive well in containers, primarily because of their large roots. Having said that I do often keep newly purchased plants in their pots in view of the kitchen window for a few weeks so that I can enjoy the flowers at close hand – you do need to keep the pots well watered though or you risk losing your new additions before they even make it to the garden bed. Once planted hellebores are very hardy, coping well with frost and snow.
After growing undisturbed for 6 years now some of my plants are fairly substantial and I am considering dividing them for the first time in the autumn. As this will be a first for me I will probably start with one plant this year and see how easily the divisions re-establish themselves.
I am looking forward to choosing some new hellebores to add to my garden this winter. I am determined to plant some Helleborus foetidus this year. Known rather unpleasantly as the stinking hellebore, this is a beautiful plant with small nodding purple edged pale green flowers – I had a large clump in my last garden and failed to bring any with me – I have missed them ever since. I have also seen a beautiful double flowered Harvington hybrid helleborus niger on the Crocus website – I will certainly be adding this one to my garden!
Do you grow hellebores? I would love to hear about your tips for success (or problems!) and any recommendations for varieties you love.